With Independence Day looming, we hear a lot about "freedom." The holiday is our national celebration of freedom and the word echoes through our consciousness like no other. But this year, I hope we stop and really consider the meaning of freedom. We need to, because mostly our national conversation echoes with shallow regurgitations of trite expressions. Most of these voices believe in an irresponsible absolute freedom, an unimpeded freedom to do and say and be anything. In fact, that has never been the case. Freedom is not absolute. Freedom is the essence of responsibility. Exercising freedom is risky. Those who exercise freedom often suffer consequences. The real heroes of freedom we celebrate on the 4th of July are responsible risk-taking citizens.
Mary McDowell was a well-qualified New York City teacher in 1917. She had a degree from Swarthmore, had studied at Oxford University, and boasted a master's degree from Columbia. Remember, this was a time when the vast majority of people did not attend college. Few women held college degrees. McDowell had accomplished much. She was a twelve-year veteran teacher. Her record was exemplary and her evaluations confirmed that she was dedicated and effective. She was also a Quaker and a pacifist, though many testified that she never proselytized about her religion or her pacifist views. Still, as Dana Goldstein describes in her book The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, McDowell's decision to exercise the freedom of speech and conscience had significant personal consequences.
With the advent of U.S. involvement in World War I, the school district demanded that every New York City teacher sign a loyalty pledge. That pledge required a declaration that the individual support the military policies of the national government, the president, and Congress, "making the world safe for democracy." It's important to notice here that teachers were specifically required to swear loyalty to the president and the Congress. Not even soldiers of the U.S. military were required to do that. Instead, members of the armed forces swore first to protect and defend the Constitution and then to obey the military orders of their superiors.
Mary McDowell could not reconcile the loyalty oath with her religious views and she refused. In an administrative trial by the New York City Department of Education in May 1918, despite a host of support and testimony from the community and colleagues, McDowell lost her job. So did other teachers. The public applauded the move. The New York Times encouraged the Board of Education to "root out all the disloyal or doubtful teachers." Mary McDowell exercised her freedom of speech and conviction, but it was not without consequences. She is only one small example in American history.
In 1765-66, Americans protested by refusing to pay the stamp tax. Local courts did not meet and thus it was impossible to collect a debt, probate a will, or record a deed of sale. Merchants and ship captains could not register a manifest, so ships sat idle in the harbors. No goods were shipped in or out of the colonies. Colonists exercised freedom--the freedom to ignore a tax--and many suffered the economic consequences.
In antebellum America, thousands of enslaved men and women attempted the risky escape to freedom. Most didn't succeed. Some never survived the journey. Of those who did, most never again saw their family--spouses, children, parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, or cousins. Many spent the rest of their lives one step ahead of the slave-catcher. It was a life without any legal status. Yet, they risked everything for the freedom to provide for themselves and make their own decisions, to be free of slavery's depravations. Freedom requires sacrifice, and it has consequences.
Every decade of American history has similar examples.
The very opportunity to exercise individual freedom is a precious thing. It is the essence of our American character. It is the legacy of men and women who, in 1776, dreamed of a world based on Enlightenment principles: that every individual--not government, and not just a privileged few--is vested with unalienable rights including "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The authors of the Declaration understood that the exercise of freedom had consequences. They risked everything. They girded themselves for the work ahead, pledging to each other, "our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."
Americans today are quick to claim freedom, liberty to do whatever we want to do. But when things get tough--when there are consequences--we act like children in the schoolyard, whining and blaming someone else for taking away our toy. We no longer appreciate the responsibility or the sacrifice our freedom requires. If we expect to have freedom, we must dedicate ourselves to the hard work of freedom. This weekend, like the founding generation on that first Independence Day, pledge yourself to the work ahead with the full understanding that we will--we must--sacrifice for freedom.